Yiddish for vagina
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Tue Jan 30 12:41:00 MST 2001
In These Times, February 19, 2001
If the "Story" Could Talk
By S.L Wisenberg
"Shulamis," the teacher says, as I knew she would, "vos hert zikh?"
Shulamis is my Yiddish name and the Yiddish teacher is asking what's being
heard, meaning, "What's doing?" The class nearly always begins this way,
round-robin, like group therapy, like consciousness-raising. It's all
female, it so happens, though men have come and gone, mostly gone. Over the
years of weeks, we've learned of tsuris--trouble--with contractors,
computer repairmen, auto mechanics and adult children; births, deaths and
illness; weddings and bar mitzvahs attended; cruises and other travels; and
often, of current movies and plays. Since I saw a performance Saturday
night, I say just that, except that I say forshung instead of forshtellung,
which means I attended a research, rather than a play. Once that's cleared
up, the teacher asks, "And what was it called?"
I improvise: "Di Vagina Monologn."
I'm in luck: double cognates. But because our teacher doesn't want us to
rely on cognates, she teaches us another word: dos muterort, mother place.
Of course we have to ask why a vagina is neuter (dos) and the teacher
reminds us that "beard" in Yiddish is feminine: di bord. She also tells us
the Sanskrit word for vagina, yoni. I continue with my recital. I tell them
that the writer was the performer, that she wore a zhupke (skirt, but I
meant kleyd, a dress) and no shoes. For a moment, my fellow Yiddishists
imagine that Eve Ensler performed topless.
The questions come at me thick and fast, in Yiddish and English:
"What is there to say?"
"You can't talk about everything. That's private."
"Dos muterort," I say, "iz shtum," using the only word I can think of for
"silent." I'm thinking of one form of the letter alef, which is stum or
"And the breasts," a classmate asks, "they speak?"
"Yoh," I say.
"Could I write a monologue about my nose?"
"It wouldn't be very interesting."
"The writer," I say, "interviewed many women."
"About their vaginas?"
"What did she ask them?"
I approximate: "If your vagina could wear something, what would it wear?"
"You mean underwear?"
"Neyn," I say. It made so much sense inside the theater, Ensler with her
perfect shiny bob of hair, listing the answers women gave her--taffeta
dress, mink--though even then it was hard to imagine, because how can you
dress a part of you that is a passageway? In that semi-darkness, it was
easier to make the metaphorical leap. I wanted to say, "It's like asking,
'If you were a tree, what kind would you be?' " but the conditional is so
The conversation veers away and back, during which the teacher tells us the
word for "period" (pekl), and another student says that we've already
learned it. But the rest of us are so forgetful that we deny learning
anything until we've heard it 10 times. It's tricky to keep up with this
wanted-dead-or-alive language, which few of us actually use outside each
The class meets in the chapel of an Orthodox synagogue in Chicago, though
the class is sponsored by a nonsectarian Jewish adult-ed organization, not
the synagogue. We used to meet in the library of a nearby worn-out building
before it changed hands and became an Indian center. This chapel has a
mekhitsa, the wall that separates men and women at prayer. We meet in the
women's section, not because the group happens to be all-female, but
because there's more space to move around. Here, where we have learned
there is no Yiddish word for "brunch" but there is one for "e-mail"
(blitz-post), we now learn the words damen-bandazh ("ladies-bandage," or
sanitary napkin) and klole ("curse"), and discuss whether God's curse was
menstruation or childbirth. After class, we walk down the synagogue hallway
speaking (in English) about menstruation.
Later at home I look up "vagina" in my modern Yiddish-English dictionary
(copyright 1968, reprinted 1990) and find di vagina (hard g) and di
mutersheyd. (I trust my teacher, though; she gives us the most current
translations.) I look for "tampon" (not there), "vulva" (missing), clitoris
(gone), feeling uneasily like an 11-year-old, looking up dirty words in the
Does this mean that the folks who claim that Yiddish is dead are right,
that the mameloshen--"mother tongue"--is not a living language? "Orgasm"
(cognate) is listed, because, I assume, men have them. Same with
"masturbation" (der onanizm). "Penis" is a cognate, and its slang
variations, shmuck and putz, are unlisted but quite at home in America.
For a moment the bilingual dictionary makes me feel partially disappeared,
my genitalia only half recognized. Later my teacher will tell me, via
blitz-post, that there are about 40 entries for "vagina" in her Yiddish
thesaurus, and that her all-time favorite is di mayse, "the story."
But before I know this, while I am still contemplating my too-empty
dictionary, I think: For a few minutes, there we were--Orthodox and
Conservative and secular Jewish women, hair covered and wildly
uncovered--talking aloud and bilingually about vaginas as we sat by
ourselves behind the mekhitsa.
S.L. Wisenberg's short story collection, The Sweetheart Is In, is
forthcoming in April from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press.
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